It has come to my attention that some of you (I am looking at you) don’t know what I mean by the word “race.” I try to be consistent, but unfortunately, the word is used pretty inconsistently out in society–“Human race,” “Asian race,” “English race,” “Female race,” etc. There is even a term, “landrace” used over in biology to denote a domesticated, locally adapted, traditional variety of a species of animal or plant. “Race” was originally used similar to “breed” or “lineage;” today, people usually use it to denote a level of genetic relatedness one step up from ethnic group.
When I use it, I am (usually) referring to one of the three macro-races of humanity: Sub-Saharan Africans, Caucasians, and Asians.
People often treat “Caucasian” and “white” as synonyms, but they’re not. “Caucasians” includes North Africans, Middle Easterners, Europeans, and many Indians (from India.) Three of these groups are not generally thought of as being included in “white,” but from a genetic perspective they definitely cluster together in the Caucasian clade (depicted above.) People may tell you that “race is a social construct,” but human population clades are not.
Since people don’t use “race” in any consistent way, it would be valid to refer to a “white race” that is a subset of the greater Caucasian race–but this is confusing because two different levels of genetic similarity are being described with the same word.
I have personally come to regard “white” as an America-centric ethnonym, (but I can’t promise I have always used it consistently.)
What do I mean?
“Whites” and “Blacks” in America are not drawn equally from all pale and dark skinned groups back in Europe and Africa. Indeed, just having some kind of European identity (eg, Irish,) is often enough to incur an at least joking insistence that one is not white.
Remember that homo Sapiens is about 300,000 years old, give or take a decade, and the era of swift, long-range travel is only about 500 years old. The “races” and “ethnic groups” that existed in 1491 were largely a result of travel being difficult, with barriers like the Sahara desert and the Himalayas massively interfering with human movement. These barriers effectively separated most human groups, preventing them from interbreeding and thus sending them off in their own genetic directions–until 1492.
Post 1492, the Americas became a mixing zone where Native Americans (Asian clade), Europeans (Caucasians) and West Africans (Sub Saharan Africans) met and interacted–the many degrees of mixed race ancestry found in Latin America are one result of this interaction.
American whites hailed, indeed, from a different race than American blacks and they, in turn, from American Indians. So within the American context, calling them different races made sense–and was accurate. But they were never drawn equally from all parts of their greater racial clades. They were drawn from particular ethnic groups back home–US “whites” initially from Northwest European countries like Britain, France, and the Netherlands.
When these different ethnic groups got here and started marrying each other, they became their own, new ethnic group.
So when people ask, “Is so-and-so white?” or “Is this group white?” it depends on what exactly you mean by white. Do you mean “light skinned”? Treated as white in the US? European? Hailing from one of the ethnic groups that contributed to “whites” in the US? Not possessing any competing European ethnic identity besides white?
Usually meaning can be inferred from conversation, but things can get confusing when people are using two different definitions or when discussing groups that didn’t contribute much to America’s founding stock.
I have perhaps mentioned before my discomfort with the word “racism”–not because I don’t think people discriminate against other people, but because it privileges offenses that cross a certain level of genetic dissimilarity between people as worse than offenses that cross smaller differences.
Was the English genocide of the Boers somehow less bad simply because the English and Boers are both “white”? Yes, we could say that the English were racist against the Boers, despite being part of the same race, or declare that the “English race” is a thing, but this is confusing. Plus, people can dislike each other for reasons totally unrelated to race, such as being male or female, disabled, or unattractive. I doubt anyone who was turned down for a date or denied a job because they happen to have the misfortune of being ugly ever comforted themself that at least they weren’t turned down because of their race.
And then there is the recent trend of calling people racist for disliking particular religions, even though Americans have traditionally thought of religions as belief systems–matters of opinion–rather than ethnic groups. (Indeed, there is a deep conflict between the traditional American view that religion is a matter of conscience, enshrined in the Bill of Rights next to the Freedom of Speech, and thus freely criticisable like any other opinion, and the view put forth by various endogamous ethno-religious groups that religion is ethnicity and therefore any criticism is racist.)
But to sum: when I use “race,” I am referring to the macro-races of Caucasians, East Asians, and Sub-Saharan Africans. I try not to confuse matters by mixing up genetic levels, but I can’t promise I have always been consistent in every post.
In honor of reaching 800 posts, we’ve taken a look back at our most popular pieces. Some of them have been surprises–like Do Black Babies Have Blue Eyes? (I didn’t think they did, but I wanted to be sure, because I had run across general claims like “All babies are born with blue eyes.”)
Apparently people love babies, so here are some interesting baby facts:
Babies are born with less melanin than their parents, because there’s no need for protection from sunlight while in the womb. This is why black babies are often a bit paler than than parents. (I try not to invade other people’s privacy by posting photos of other people’s infants, but here is a stock photo in which the newborn’s color is about the same as their father’s palms, distinctly lighter than their father’s overall coloration.)
Melanin levels typically increase over time in babies of all races, darkening skin and eyes. So white babies are often born with blue, grey, or light brown eyes that darken to the normal white range of blue to dark brown, but most African and Asian babies start out with eyes that are already pretty dark because they naturally have more melanin–though even their eyes show a range of newborn colors, from dark grey to green.
Hair: Most babies, including black/African babies, are born with soft, silky hair. Baby hair is different from adult hair because it grows from round hair follicles (which produce straight hair) and lacks the central shaft (or medulla) that stiffens adult hair. Over the first few months of life, follicles flatten and medullas grow in, giving hair its stiffer, curlier, more adult form, though the extent of this process differs widely by population.
White babies end up with a variety of hair textures. Most Asian babies end up with thick, straight hair, due to a variant of the EDAR gene that arose about 65,000 years ago. Despite the great genetic variety found in Sub-Saharan Africa, almost all black babies end up with tightly coiled, curly hair. Black hair has probably therefore been very valuable to people in Africa, providing enough of an evolutionary advantage that it has become nigh universal.
(Note that our nearest human relatives, the chimps, do not have curly hair. It is tempting to say that infant hair resembles chimpanzee hair, but I have never petted a chimp and so cannot really judge.)
433 4-mo-old infants from Boston, Dublin, and Beijing were administered the same battery of visual, auditory, and olfactory stimuli to evaluate differences in levels of reactivity. The Chinese Ss were significantly less active, irritable, and vocal than the Boston and Dublin samples, with Boston Ss showing the highest level of reactivity. Data suggest the possibility of temperamental differences between Caucasian and Asian infants in reactivity to stimulation.
The average length of gestation is about 5 days shorter in black populations than in white populations. Although some of this difference is accounted for by higher preterm delivery rates in blacks, the most common gestational week of delivery at term is the 39th in black populations, the 40th in white. Black gestational age specific neonatal mortality is lower than that of whites until the 37th week of gestation, but higher thereafter.
Another article with similar findings (though I don’t know how they define “Asian” because the source is British and Brits often include south Asians like Pakistanis in the “Asian” category even though they are genetically closer to Europeans. So far I haven’t found any data that specifically addresses gestation length in East Asians.) This study found that pregnancies vary naturally in length by over a month, even excluding some premature births. There are many reasons why pregnancies may vary, including maternal age, size, stress, and genetics–important factors for Obgyns to keep in mind when evaluating the medical needs of different mothers and their fetuses.
Our society has managed to simultaneously discover identity politics and that identity groups tend to vote together:
“We’re just like you! Make society friendlier to us!”
“Okay, but why do you all vote for the party I don’t like?”
Even when you control for ideology, ethnic voting still shows up. This graph shows only conservatives–conservative blacks are still extremely unlikely to vote for Republicans. Conservative Asians and Hispanics actually do vote Republican on balance (in this particular poll), but about 40% of them still voted for the Democrat.
Non-Jewish whites are the most loyal conservative voters, even among self-professed conservatives.
The problem with immigration is that we live in a democracy.
Republicans now regard immigration as a massive attempt to demographically swamp the electorate by bringing in new voters who’ll vote Democrat because this is the functional result of immigration. Whether intentional or not, that is absolutely what it does.
Identity politics and awareness of identity-based voting are incompatible. “We’re just like you, we just vote for everything you hate,” is not a winning argument.
Polite society often requires politely not noticing or not pointing out other people’s differences. A store clerk helps an customer find a “flattering dress” without mentioning the customer’s obesity. A teacher helps students catch up in school without calling them stupid. And we don’t mention that different ethnic groups have different political ideas.
“They’re just like us,” and “I don’t see race,” are both lies people tell to try to get along in large, multi-ethnic societies. Obviously ethnic and racial differences are easy to see, and different groups have different cultures with their own norms, values, and beliefs. Chinese culture is different from Ghanian culture is different from Chilean culture is different from gay culture is different from video game culture, and so on.
The pretty little lie of democracy is the idea that people vote based on rational, well-thought out ideas about how government should be run. In reality, they vote their self-interest, and most people see their self-interest lying in solidarity with others in their ethnic group. Even when they aren’t voting pure self-interest, cultural similarities still result in voting similarities.
The insistence that people must see race was accompanied by increased demands for racially-based benefits/an end to racially-based harms–that is, the change was triggered by a perception that being more racially aware would benefit minorities. But this leads, in turn, to increased visibility of ethnic voting patterns, explicit vote-counting by ethnicity, and ethnic voting conflict.
Admit that ethnic differences are real and that everyone is voting in their own self-interest.
Admit that ethnic differences are real and get rid of voting.
Option One is the Left’s strategy. These are the folks who insist that “race is a social construct” but at the same time that “white fragility” is real and that “whiteness needs to be abolished.” They’ll also threaten to send you to gulag for stating that Affirmative Action exists because blacks score worse than whites on the SAT. (True story.)
Option Two is the Alt-Right strategy. If the Pittsburgh shooter’s motive remains opaque to you, here it is: the majority of US Jews vote Democrat and support immigration policies that will continue giving Democrats a majority.
Option Three is NeoReaction aka neocameralism. Remove voting and you remove the incentive to shoot each other over demographic cheating (perceived or not.)
(This blog favors Option Three, the strategy that doesn’t involve shooting each other, but we understand why others might not.)
ETA: Perhaps there ought to be an Option Four: People stop arguing so much and try harder to get along. I’m not sure exactly how this would come about, but I know there are people who believe in it.
I almost feel sad for Senator Warren. One day, a little girl looked in the mirror, saw pale skin, brown hair, and blue eyes looking back at her, and thought, “No. This can’t be right. This isn’t me.”
So she found a new identity, based on a family legend–a legend shared by a suspicious number of white people–that one of her ancestors was an American Indian.
This new identity conveyed certain advantages: Harvard Law claimed her as a Native American to boost claims of racial diversity among the faculty:
A majority [83%] of Harvard Law School students are unhappy with the level of representation of women and minorities on the Law School faculty, according to a recent survey. …
Law students said they want to learn from a variety of perspectives and approaches to the law. “A black male from a lower socioeconomic background will approach the study of constitutional law in a different way from a white upper-class male,” Reyes said. …
Of 71 current Law School professors and assistant professors, 11 are women, five are black, one is Native American and one is Hispanic, said Mike Chmura, spokesperson for the Law School.
Although the conventional wisdom among students and faculty is that the Law School faculty includes no minority women, Chmura said Professor of Law Elizabeth Warren is Native American.
In response to criticism of the current administration, Chmura pointed to “good progress in recent years.”
The University of Pennsylvania chose not to tout in the press their newly minted Native American professor. But her minority status was duly noted: The university’s Minority Equity Report, published in April 2005, shows that Warren won a teaching award in 1994. Her name is in bold and italicized to indicate she was a minority. …
The law school was happy to have her count as a diversity statistic, however, and for at least three of the years she taught there — 1991, 1992, and 1994 — an internal publication drawing on statistics from the university’s federal affirmative action report listed one Native American female professor in the university’s law school.
Warren’s Native American identity may have played no role in her hiring (the committees involved appear not to have known or cared about her identity,) but it seems to have been important to Warren herself. As her relatives aged and died, and she moved away from her childhood home in Oklahoma and then Texas, she was faced with that persistent question: Who am I?
The truth, a white woman from a working class family in Oklahoma, apparently wasn’t enough for Elizabeth. (Oklahoma doesn’t carry many status points over in East Coast academic institutions.)
Each of us is the sum of many things, including the stories our families tell us and genetic contributions from all of our ancestors–not just the interesting ones (within a limit–after enough generations, each individual contribution has become so small that it may not be passed on in reproduction.)
I have also done the 23 and Me thing, and found that I hail from something like 20 different ethnic groups–including, like Warren, a little smidge of Native American. But none of those groups make up the majority of my DNA. All of them are me; none of them are me. I just am.
Warren’s announcement of her DNA findings vindicated her claim to a Native American ancestor and simultaneously unveiled the absurdity of her claim to be a Native American. What should have been a set of family tales told to friends and passed on to children and grandchildren about a distant ancestor became a matter of national debate that the Cherokee Nation itself felt compelled to weigh in on:
Using a DNA test to lay claim to any connection to the Cherokee Nation or any tribal nation, even vaguely, is inappropriate and wrong. It makes a mockery out of DNA tests and its legitimate uses while also dishonoring legitimate tribal governments and their citizens, whose ancestors are well documented and whose heritage is proven. Senator Warren is undermining tribal interests with her continued claims of tribal heritage.
Like them or not, the Cherokee have rules about who is and isn’t a Cherokee, because being Cherokee conveys certain benefits–for example, the tribe builds houses for members and helps them look for jobs. This is why conflicts arise over matters like whether the Cherokee Freedmen are official members. When membership in a group conveys benefits, the borders of that group will be policed–and claims like Warren’s, no matter how innocently intended, will be perceived as an attempt at stealing something not meant for her.
Note: I am not saying this kind of group border policing is legitimate. Many “official” Cherokee have about as much actual Cherokee blood in them as Elizabeth Warren, but they have a documented ancestor on the Dawes Rolls, so they qualify and she doesn’t. Border policing is just what happens when there are benefits associated with being part of a group.
I don’t have an issue with Warren’s own self-identity. After all, if race is a social construct,* then she’s doing it exactly right. She’s allowed to have an emotional connection to her own ancestors, whether that connection is documented via the Dawes Rolls or not. All of us here in America should have equal access to Harvard’s benefits, not just the ones who play up a story about their ancestors.
The sad thing, though, is that despite being one of the most powerful and respected women people in America, she still felt the need to be more than she is, to latch onto an identity she doesn’t truly possess.
You know, Elizabeth… it’s fine to just be a white person from Oklahoma. It’s fine to be you.
*Note: This blog regards “species” and nouns generally as social constructs, because language is inherently social. That does not erase biology.
Welcome to EvX’s book club. Today we’re discussing Philip Auerswald’s The Code Economy, Introduction.
I’ve been discussing the robot economy for years (though not necessarily via the blog.) What happens when robots take over most of the productive jobs? Most humans were once involved in directly producing the necessities of human life–food, clothing, and shelter, but mostly food. Today, machines have eliminated most food and garment production jobs. One tractor easily plows many more acres in a day than a horse or mule team did in the 1800s, allowing one man to produce as much food as dozens (or hundreds) once did.
What happened to those ex-farmers? Most of us are employed in new professions that didn’t exist (eg, computer specialist) or barely existed (health care), but there are always those who can’t find employment–and unemployment isn’t evenly distributed.
Since 1948, the overall employment rate has rarely exceeded 7.5%; the rate for whites has been slightly lower. By contrast, the black unemployment rate has rarely dipped below 10% (since 1972, the best data I have.) The black unemployment rate has only gone below 7.5 three times–for one month in 1999, one month in 2000, and since mid-2017. 6.6% in April, 2018 is the all-time low for black unemployment. (The white record, 3.0%, was set in the ’60s.)
(As Auerswald points out, “unemployment” was a virtually unknown concept in the Medieval economy, where social station automatically dictated most people’s jobs for life.)
Now I know the books are cooked and “unemployment” figures are kept artificially low by shunting many of the unemployed into the ranks of the officially “disabled,” who aren’t counted in the statistics, but no matter how you count the numbers, blacks struggle to find jobs at the same rates as whites–a problem they didn’t face in the pre-industrial, agricultural economy (though that economy caused suffering in its own way.)
A quick glance at measures of black and white educational attainment explains most of the employment gap–blacks graduate from school at lower rates, are less likely to earn a college degree, and overall have worse SAT/ACT scores. In an increasingly “post-industrial,” knowledge-based economy where most unskilled labor can be performed by robots, what happens to unskilled humans?
What happens when all of the McDonald’s employees have been replaced by robots and computers? When even the advice given by lawyers and accountants can be more cheaply delivered by an app on your smartphone? What if society, eventually, doesn’t need humans to perform most jobs?
Will most people simply be unemployed, ruled over by the robot-owning elite and the lucky few who program the robots? Will new forms of work we haven’t even begun to dream of emerge? Will we adopt some form of universal basic income, or descend into neo-feudalism? Will we have a permanent underclass of people with no hope of success in the current economy, either despairing at their inability to live successful lives or living slothfully off the efforts of others?
Here lies the crux of Auerswald’s thesis. He provides four possible arguments for how the “advance of code” (ie, the accumulation of technological knowledge and innovation,) could turn out for humans.
The Rifkin View:
The power of code is growing at an exponential rate.
Code nearly perfectly substitutes for human capabilities.
Therefore the (relative) power of human capabilities is shrinking at an exponential rate.
If so, we should be deeply worried.
The Kurzweil View:
The power of code is growing at an exponential rate.
Code nearly perfectly complements human capabilities.
Therefore the (absolute) power of human capabilities is growing at an exponential rate.
If so, we may look forward to the cyborg singularity
The Auerswald View:
The power of code is growing at an exponential rate [at least we all agree on something.]
Code only partially substitutes for human capabilities.
Therefore the (relative) power of human capabilities is shrinking at an exponential rate in those categories of work that can be performed by computers, but not in others.
In other words, where Kurzweil talks about an impeding code-induced Singularity, the reality looks much more like one code-induced bifurcation–the division of labor between humans and machines–after another.
The answer to the question, “Is there anything that humans can do better than digital computers?” turns out to be fairly simple: humans are better at being human.
1. Creating and improving code is a key part of what we human beings do. It’s how we invent the future by building on the past.
2. The evolution of the economy is driven by the advance of code. Understanding this advance is therefore fundamental to economics, and to much of human history.
3. When we create and advance code we don’t just invent new toys, we produce new forms of meaning, new experiences, and new ways of making our way in the world.
Homo sapiens is about 200-300,000 years old, depending on exactly where you draw the line between us and our immediate ancestors. Printing (and eventually mass literacy) only got going about 550 years ago, with the development of the Gutenberg press. TV, radio, movies, and the internet only became widespread within the past century, and internet in the past 25 years.
In other words, for 99.99% of human history, “mass media” didn’t exist.
How did illiterate peasants learn about the world, if not from books, TV, or Youtube videos? Naturally, from each other: parents passed knowledge to children; tribal elders taught their wisdom to other members of their tribes; teenagers were apprenticed to masters who already knew a trade, etc.
A hundred years ago, if you wanted to know how to build a wagon, raise a barn, or plant corn, you generally had to find someone who knew how to do so and ask them. Today, you ask the internet.
Getting all of your information from people you know is limiting, but it has two advantages: you can easily judge whether the source of your information is reliable, (you’re not going to take farming advice from your Uncle Bob whose crops always fail,) and most of the people giving you information have your best interests at heart.
The internet’s strength is that it lets us talk to people from outside our own communities; it’s weakness is that this makes it much easier for people (say, Nigerian princes with extra bank accounts,) to get away with lying. They also have no particular interest one way or another in your survival–unlike your parents.
In a mitochondrial memetic environment (that is, an environment where you get most of your information from relatives,) memes that could kill you tend to get selected against: parents who encourage their children to eat poison tend not to have grandchildren. From an evolutionary perspective, deadly memes are selected against in a mitochondrial environment; memes will evolve to support your survival.
By contrast, in a viral meme environment, (that is, an environment where ideas can easily pass from person to person without anyone having to give birth,) your personal survival is not all that important to the idea’s success.
So one of the risks of viral memes is getting scammed: memetically, infected by an idea that sounds good but actually benefits someone else at your expense.
In the mitochondrial environment, we expect people to be basically cautious; in the viral, less cautious.
Suppose we have two different groups (Group A and Group B) interacting. 25% of Group B is violent criminals, versus 5% of Group A. Folks in group A would quite logically want to avoid Group B. But 75% of Group B is not violent criminals, and would logically not want to be lumped in with criminals. (For that matter, neither do the 25% who are.)
In an ideal world, we could easily sort out violent criminals from the rest of the population, allowing the innocent people to freely associate. In the real world, we have to make judgment calls. Lean a bit toward the side of caution, and you exclude more criminals, but also more innocents; lean the opposite direction and innocent people have an easier time finding jobs and houses, but more people get killed by criminals.
Let’s put it less abstractly: suppose you are walking down a dimly-lit street at night and see a suspicious looking person coming toward you. It costs you almost nothing to cross the street to avoid them, while not crossing the street could cost you your life. The person you avoided, if they are innocent, incurs only the expense of potentially having their feelings hurt; if they are a criminal, they have lost a victim.
Companies also want to avoid criminals, which makes it hard for ex-cons to get jobs (which is an issue if we want folks who are no longer in prison to have an opportunity to earn an honest living besides going on welfare.) Unfortunately, efforts to improve employment chances for ex-cons by preventing employers from inquiring directly about criminal history have resulted in employers using rougher heuristics to exclude felons, like simply not hiring young African American males. Since most companies have far more qualified job applicants than available jobs, the cost to them of excluding young African American males is fairly low–while the cost to African Americans is fairly high.
One of the interesting things about the past 200 years is the West’s historically unprecedented shift from racial apartheid/segregation and actual race-based slavery to full legal (if not always de facto) racial integration.
One of the causes of this shift was doubtless the transition from traditional production modes like farming and horticulture to the modern, industrial economy. Subsistence farming didn’t require a whole lot of employees. Medieval peasants didn’t change occupations very often: most folks ended up working in the same professions as their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents (usually farming,) probably even on the same estate.
It was only with industrialization that people and their professions began uncoupling; a person could now hold multiple different jobs, in different fields, over the span of years.
Of course, there were beginnings of this before the 1800s–just as people read books before the 1800s–but accelerating technological development accelerated the trends.
But while capitalists want to hire the best possible workers for the lowest possible wages, this doesn’t get us all the way to the complete change we’ve witnessed in racial mores. After all, companies don’t want to hire criminals, either, and any population that produces a lot of criminals tends not to produce a whole lot of really competent workers.
However, the rise of mass communication has allowed us to listen to and empathize with far more people than ever before. When Martin Luther King marched on Washington and asked to be judged by the content of his character rather than the color of his skin, his request only reached national audiences because of modern media, because we now live in a society of meme viruses. And it worked: integration happened.
Also, crime went up dramatically:
While we’re at it:
Integration triggered a massive increase in crime, which only stopped because… well, we’re not sure, but a corresponding massive increase in the incarceration rate (and sentences) has probably stopped a lot of criminals from committing additional crimes.
Most of these homicides were black on black, but plenty of the victims were white, even as they sold their devalued homes and fled the violence. (Housing integration appears to have struck America’s “ethnic” neighborhoods of Italians, Irish, and Jews particularly hard, destroying coherent communities and, I assume, voting blocks.)
From the white perspective, integration was tremendously costly: people died. Segregation might not be fair, it might kill black people, but it certainly prevented the murder of whites. But segregation, as discussed, does have some costs for whites: you are more limited in all of your transactions, both economic and personal. You can’t sell your house to just anyone you want. Can’t hire anyone you want. Can’t fall in love with anyone you want.
But obviously segregation is far more harmful to African Americans.
Despite all of the trouble integration has caused for whites, the majority claim to believe in it–even though their feet tell a different story. This at least superficial change in attitudes, I believe, was triggered by the nature of the viral memetic environment.
Within the mitochondrial meme environment, you listen to people who care about your survival and they pass on ideas intended to help you survive. They don’t typically pass on ideas that sacrifice your survival for the sake of others, at least not for long. Your parents will tell you that if you see someone suspicious, you should cross the street and get away.
In the viral environment, you interact far more with people who have their own interests in mind, not yours, and these folks would be perfectly happy for you to sacrifice your survival for their sake. The good folks at Penn State would like you to know that locking your car door when a black person passes by is a “microaggression:”
Former President Obama once said in his speech that he was followed when he was shopping in a store, heard the doors of cars locked as he was walking by, and a woman showed extremely nervousness as he got on an elevator with him (Obama, 2013). Those are examples of nonverbal microaggressions. It is disturbing to learn that those behaviors are often automatic that express “put-downs” of individuals in marginalized groups (Pierce et al., 1977). What if Obama were White, would he receive those unfair treatments?
(If Obama were white, like Hillary Clinton, he probably wouldn’t have been elected president.)
For some reason, black people shoplifting, carjacking, or purse-snatching are never described as “microaggressions;” a black person whose feelings are hurt has been microaggressed, but a white person afraid of being robbed or murdered has not been.
This post was actually inspired by an intra-leftist debate:
Shortly after the highly successful African-star-studded movie Black Panther debuted, certain folks, like Faisal Kutty, started complaining that the film is “Islamophobic” because of a scene where girls are rescued from a Boko Haram-like organization.
Never mind that Boko Haram is a real organization, that it actually kidnaps girls, that it has killed more people than ISIS and those people it murders are Africans. Even other Black African Muslims think Boko Haram is shit. (Though obviously BH has its supporters.)
Here we have two different groups of people with different interests: one, Muslims with no particular ties to Africa who don’t want people to associate them with Boko Haram, and two, Black Muslims who don’t want to get killed by folks like Boko Haram.
It is exceedingly disingenuous for folks like Faisal Kutty to criticize as immoral an accurate portrayal of a group that is actually slaughtering thousands of people just because he might accidentally be harmed by association. More attention on Boko Haram could save lives; less attention could result in more deaths–the dead just wouldn’t be Kutty, who is safe in Canada.
Without mass media, I don’t think this kind of appeal works: survival memes dominate and people take danger very seriously. “Some stranger in Canada might be inconvenienced over this” loses to “these people slaughter children.” With mass media, the viral environment allows appeals to set aside your own self-interest and ignore danger in favor of “fairness” and “equality” for everyone in the conversation to flourish.
So far this post has focused primarily on the interests of innocent people, but criminals have interests, too–and criminals would like you to make it easier for them to commit crime.
Simon Mol (6 November 1973 in Buea, Cameroon – 10 October 2008) was the pen name of Simon Moleke Njie, a Cameroon-born journalist, writer and anti-racist political activist. In 1999 he sought political asylum in Poland; it was granted in 2000, and he moved to Warsaw, where he became a well-known anti-racist campaigner. …
In 2005 he organized a conference with Black ambassadors in Poland to protest the claims in an article in Wiedza i Życie by Adam Leszczyński about AIDS problems in Africa, which quoted research stating that a majority of African women were unable to persuade their HIV positive husbands to wear condoms, and so later got caught HIV themselves. Mol accused Leszczyński of prejudice because of this publication. …
Honorary member of the British International Pen Club Centre.
In 2006 Mol received the prestigious award “Oxfam Novib/PEN Award for Freedom of Expression”.
In February 2006, further to his partner’s request for him to take an HIV test, Mol declined and published a post on his blog explaining why not:
Character assassination isn’t a new phenomenon. However, it appears here the game respects no rules. It wouldn’t be superfluous to state that there is an ingrained, harsh and disturbing dislike for Africans here. The accusation of being HIV positive is the latest weapon that as an African your enemy can raise against you. This ideologically inspired weapon, is strengthened by the day with disturbing literature about Africa from supposed-experts on Africa, some of whom openly boast of traveling across Africa in two weeks and return home to write volumes. What some of these hastily compiled volumes have succeeded in breeding, is a social and psychological conviction that every African walking the street here is supposedly HIV positive, and woe betide anyone who dares to unravel the myth being put in place.
On the 3rd of January 2007 Mol was taken into custody by the Polish police and charged with infecting his sexual partners with HIV. …
According to the Rzeczpospolita newspaper, he was diagnosed with HIV back in 1999 while living in a refugee shelter, but Polish law does not force an HIV carrier to reveal his or her disease status.
According to the police inspector who was investigating his case, a witness stated that Mol refused to wear condoms during sex. An anonymous witness in one case said that he accused a girl who demanded he should wear them that she was racist because as he was Black she thought he must be infected with HIV. After sexual intercourse he used to say to his female partners that his sperm was sacred.
In an unusual move, his photo with an epidemiological warning, was ordered to be publicly displayed by the then Minister of Justice Zbigniew Ziobro. MediaWatch, a body that monitors alleged racism, quickly denounced this decision, asserting that it was a breach of ethics with racist implications, as the picture had been published before any court verdict. They saw it as evidence of institutional racism in Poland, also calling for international condemnation. …
After police published Mol’s photo and an alert before the start of court proceedings, Warsaw HIV testing centers were “invaded by young women”. A few said that they knew Mol. Some of the HIV tests have been positive. According to the police inspector who had been monitoring the tests and the case: “Some women very quickly started to suffer drug-resistant tonsillitis and fungal infections. They looked wasted, some lost as many as 15 kilograms and were deeply traumatized, impeding us taking the witness statements. 18 additional likely victims have been identified thereby”. Genetic tests of the virus from the infectees and Simon proved that it was specific to Cameroon.
In other words, Simon Mol was a sociopath who used the accusation of “racism” to murder dozens of women.
Criminals–of any race–are not nice people. They will absolutely use anything at their disposal to make it easier to commit crime. In the past, they posed as police officers, asked for help finding their lost dog, or just rang your doorbell. Today they can get intersectional feminists and international human rights organizations to argue on their behalf that locking your door or insisting on condoms is the real crime.
North Africa is an often misunderstood region in human genetics. Since it is in Africa, people often assume that it contains the same variety of people referenced in terms like “African Americans,” “black Africans,” or even just “Africans.” In reality, the African content contains members of all three of the great human clades–Sub-Saharan Africans in the south, Polynesians (Asian clade) in Madagascar, and Caucasians in the north.
Throughout most of human history, the Sahara–not the Mediterranean or Red seas–has been the biggest local impediment to human migration–thus North Africans are much closer, genetically, to their neighbors in Europe and the Middle East than their neighbors across the desert (and before the domestication of the camel, about 3,000 years ago, the Sahara was even harder to cross.)
But from time to time, global weather patterns change and the Sahara becomes a garden: the Green Sahara. The last time we had a Green Sahara was about 9-7,000 years ago; during this time, people lived, hunted, fished, herded and perhaps farmed throughout areas that are today nearly uninhabited wastes.
In order to investigate the role of the last Green Sahara in the peopling of Africa, we deep-sequence the whole non-repetitive portion of the Y chromosome in 104 males selected as representative of haplogroups which are currently found to the north and to the south of the Sahara. … We find that the coalescence age of the trans-Saharan haplogroups dates back to the last Green Sahara, while most northern African or sub-Saharan clades expanded locally in the subsequent arid phase. …
Our findings suggest that the Green Sahara promoted human movements and demographic expansions, possibly linked to the adoption of pastoralism. Comparing our results with previously reported genome-wide data, we also find evidence for a sex-biased sub-Saharan contribution to northern Africans, suggesting that historical events such as the trans-Saharan slave trade mainly contributed to the mtDNA and autosomal gene pool, whereas the northern African paternal gene pool was mainly shaped by more ancient events.
In other words, modern North Africans have some maternal (female) Sub-Saharan DNA that arrived recently via the Islamic slave trade, but most of their Sub-Saharan Y-DNA (male) is much older, hailing from the last time the Sahara was easy to cross.
Note that not much DNA is shared across the Sahara:
After the African humid period, the climatic conditions became rapidly hyper-arid and the Green Sahara was replaced by the desert, which acted as a strong geographic barrier against human movements between northern and sub-Saharan Africa.
A consequence of this is that there is a strong differentiation in the Y chromosome haplogroup composition between the northern and sub-Saharan regions of the African continent. In the northern area, the predominant Y lineages are J-M267 and E-M81, with the former being linked to the Neolithic expansion in the Near East and the latter reaching frequencies as high as 80 % in some north-western populations as a consequence of a very recent local demographic expansion [8–10]. On the contrary, sub-Saharan Africa is characterised by a completely different genetic landscape, with lineages within E-M2 and haplogroup B comprising most of the Y chromosomes. In most regions of sub-Saharan Africa, the observed haplogroup distribution has been linked to the recent (~ 3 kya) demic diffusion of Bantu agriculturalists, which brought E-M2 sub-clades from central Africa to the East and to the South [11–17]. On the contrary, the sub-Saharan distribution of B-M150 seems to have more ancient origins, since its internal lineages are present in both Bantu farmers and non-Bantu hunter-gatherers and coalesce long before the Bantu expansion [18–20].
In spite of their genetic differentiation, however, northern and sub-Saharan Africa share at least four patrilineages at different frequencies, namely A3-M13, E-M2, E-M78 and R-V88.
Here, by using whole Y chromosome sequences, we intend to shed some light on the historical and demographic processes that modelled the genetic landscape of North Africa. Previous studies suggested that the strategic location of North Africa, separated from Europe by the Mediterranean Sea, from the rest of the African continent by the Sahara Desert and limited to the East by the Arabian Peninsula, has shaped the genetic complexity of current North Africans15,16,17. Early modern humans arrived in North Africa 190–140 kya (thousand years ago)18, and several cultures settled in the area before the Holocene. In fact, a previous study by Henn et al.19 identified a gradient of likely autochthonous North African ancestry, probably derived from an ancient “back-to-Africa” gene flow prior to the Holocene (12 kya). In historic times, North Africa has been populated successively by different groups, including Phoenicians, Romans, Vandals and Byzantines. The most important human settlement in North Africa was conducted by the Arabs by the end of the 7th century. Recent studies have demonstrated the complexity of human migrations in the area, resulting from an amalgam of ancestral components in North African groups15,20.
According to the article, E-M81 is dominant in Northwest Africa and absent almost everywhere else in the world.
The authors tested various men across north Africa in order to draw up a phylogenic tree of the branching of E-M183:
The distribution of each subhaplogroup within E-M183 can be observed in Table 1 and Fig. 2. Indeed, different populations present different subhaplogroup compositions. For example, whereas in Morocco almost all subhaplogorups are present, Western Sahara shows a very homogeneous pattern with only E-SM001 and E-Z5009 being represented. A similar picture to that of Western Sahara is shown by the Reguibates from Algeria, which contrast sharply with the Algerians from Oran, which showed a high diversity of haplogroups. It is also worth to notice that a slightly different pattern could be appreciated in coastal populations when compared with more inland territories (Western Sahara, Algerian Reguibates).
Overall, the authors found that the haplotypes were “strikingly similar” to each other and showed little geographic structure besides the coastal/inland differences:
As proposed by Larmuseau et al.25, the scenario that better explains Y-STR haplotype similarity within a particular haplogroup is a recent and rapid radiation of subhaplogroups. Although the dating of this lineage has been controversial, with dates proposed ranging from Paleolithic to Neolithic and to more recent times17,22,28, our results suggested that the origin of E-M183 is much more recent than was previously thought. … In addition to the recent radiation suggested by the high haplotype resemblance, the pattern showed by E-M183 imply that subhaplogroups originated within a relatively short time period, in a burst similar to those happening in many Y-chromosome haplogroups23.
In other words, someone went a-conquering.
Alternatively, given the high frequency of E-M183 in the Maghreb, a local origin of E-M183 in NW Africa could be envisaged, which would fit the clear pattern of longitudinal isolation by distance reported in genome-wide studies15,20. Moreover, the presence of autochthonous North African E-M81 lineages in the indigenous population of the Canary Islands, strongly points to North Africa as the most probable origin of the Guanche ancestors29. This, together with the fact that the oldest indigenous inviduals have been dated 2210 ± 60 ya, supports a local origin of E-M183 in NW Africa. Within this scenario, it is also worth to mention that the paternal lineage of an early Neolithic Moroccan individual appeared to be distantly related to the typically North African E-M81 haplogroup30, suggesting again a NW African origin of E-M183. A local origin of E-M183 in NW Africa > 2200 ya is supported by our TMRCA estimates, which can be taken as 2,000–3,000, depending on the data, methods, and mutation rates used.
However, the authors also note that they can’t rule out a Middle Eastern origin for the haplogroup since their study simply doesn’t include genomes from Middle Eastern individuals. They rule out a spread during the Neolithic expansion (too early) but not the Islamic expansion (“an extensive, male-biased Near Eastern admixture event is registered ~1300 ya, coincidental with the Arab expansion20.”) Alternatively, they suggest E-M183 might have expanded near the end of the third Punic War. Sure, Carthage (in Tunisia) was defeated by the Romans, but the era was otherwise one of great North African wealth and prosperity.
Interesting papers! My hat’s off to the authors. I hope you enjoyed them and get a chance to RTWT.
In previous posts, we discussed the evolution of Whites and Asians, so today we’re taking a look at people from Sub-Saharan Africa.
Modern humans only left Africa about 100,000 to 70,000 yeas ago, and split into Asians and Caucasians around 40,000 years ago. Their modern appearances came later–white skin, light hair and light eyes, for example, only evolved in the past 20,000 and possibly within the past 10,000 years.
What about the Africans, or specifically, Sub-Saharans? (North Africans, like Tunisians and Moroccans, are in the Caucasian clade.) When did their phenotypes evolve?
The Sahara, an enormous desert about the size of the United States, is one of the world’s biggest, most ancient barriers to human travel. The genetic split between SSAs and non-SSAs, therefore, is one of the oldest and most substantial among human populations. But there are even older splits within Africa–some of the ancestors of today’s Pygmies and Bushmen may have split off from other Africans 200,000-300,000 years ago. We’re not sure, because the study of archaic African DNA is still in its infancy.
The Bushmen present an interesting case, because their skin is quite light (for Africans.) I prefer to call it golden. The nearby Damara of Namibia, by contrast, are one of the world’s darkest peoples. (The peoples of South Sudan, eg Malik Agar, may be darker, though.) The Pygmies are the world’s shortest peoples; the peoples of South Sudan, such as the Dinka and Shiluk, are among the world’s tallest.
Sub-Saharan Africa’s ethnic groups can be grouped, very broadly, into Bushmen, Pygmies, Bantus (aka Niger-Congo), Nilotics, and Afro-Asiatics. Bushmen and Pygmies are extremely small groups, while Bantus dominate the continent–about 85% of Sub Saharan Africans speak a language from the Niger-Congo family. The Afro-Asiatic groups, as their name implies, have had extensive contact with North Africa and the Middle East.
Most of America’s black population hails from West Africa–that is, the primarily Bantu region. The Bantus and similar-looking groups among the Nilotics and Afro-Asiatics (like the Hausa) are, therefore, have both Africa’s most iconic and most common phenotypes.
For the sake of this post, we are not interested in the evolution of traits common to all humans, such as bipedalism. We are only interested in those traits generally shared by most Sub-Saharans and generally not shared by people outside of Africa.
One striking trait is black hair: it is distinctively “curly” or “frizzy.” Chimps and gorrilas do not have curly hair. Neither do whites and Asians. (Whites and Asians, therefore, more closely resemble chimps in this regard.) Only Africans and a smattering of other equatorial peoples like Melanesians have frizzy hair.
Black skin is similarly distinct. Chimps, who live in the shaded forest and have fur, do not have high levels of melanin all over their bodies. While chimps naturally vary in skin tone, an unfortunate, hairless chimp is practically “white.”
Humans therefore probably evolved both black skin and frizzy hair at about the same time–when we came out of the shady forests and began running around on the much sunnier savannahs. Frizzy hair seems well-adapted to cooling–by standing on end, it lets air flow between the follicles–and of course melanin is protective from the sun’s rays. (And apparently, many of the lighter-skinned Bushmen suffer from skin cancer.)
Steatopygia also comes to mind, though I don’t know if anyone has studied its origins.
According to Wikipedia, additional traits common to Sub-Saharan Africans include:
Modern cross-analysis of osteological variables and genome-wide SNPs has identified specific genes, which control this craniofacial development. Of these genes, DCHS2, RUNX2, GLI3, PAX1 and PAX3 were found to determine nasal morphology, whereas EDAR impacts chin protrusion. …
Ashley Montagu lists “neotenous structural traits in which…Negroids [generally] differ from Caucasoids… flattish nose, flat root of the nose, narrower ears, narrower joints, frontal skull eminences, later closure of premaxillarysutures, less hairy, longer eyelashes, [and] cruciform pattern of second and third molars.”
As hominids gradually lost their fur (between 4.5 and 2 million years ago) to allow for better cooling through sweating, their naked and lightly pigmented skin was exposed to sunlight. In the tropics, natural selection favoured dark-skinned human populations as high levels of skin pigmentation protected against the harmful effects of sunlight. Indigenous populations’ skin reflectance (the amount of sunlight the skin reflects) and the actual UV radiation in a particular geographic area is highly correlated, which supports this idea. Genetic evidence also supports this notion, demonstrating that around 1.2 million years ago there was a strong evolutionary pressure which acted on the development of dark skin pigmentation in early members of the genus Homo.…
About 7 million years ago human and chimpanzee lineages diverged, and between 4.5 and 2 million years ago early humans moved out of rainforests to the savannas of East Africa. They not only had to cope with more intense sunlight but had to develop a better cooling system. …
Skin colour is a polygenic trait, which means that several different genes are involved in determining a specific phenotype. …
Data collected from studies on MC1R gene has shown that there is a lack of diversity in dark-skinned African samples in the allele of the gene compared to non-African populations. This is remarkable given that the number of polymorphisms for almost all genes in the human gene pool is greater in African samples than in any other geographic region. So, while the MC1Rf gene does not significantly contribute to variation in skin colour around the world, the allele found in high levels in African populations probably protects against UV radiation and was probably important in the evolution of dark skin.
Skin colour seems to vary mostly due to variations in a number of genes of large effect as well as several other genes of small effect (TYR, TYRP1, OCA2, SLC45A2, SLC24A5, MC1R, KITLG and SLC24A4). This does not take into account the effects of epistasis, which would probably increase the number of related genes.Variations in the SLC24A5 gene account for 20–25% of the variation between dark and light skinned populations of Africa, and appear to have arisen as recently as within the last 10,000 years. The Ala111Thr or rs1426654 polymorphism in the coding region of the SLC24A5 gene reaches fixation in Europe, and is also common among populations in North Africa, the Horn of Africa, West Asia, Central Asia and South Asia.
That’s rather interesting about MC1R. It could imply that the difference in skin tone between SSAs and non-SSAs is due to active selection in Blacks for dark skin and relaxed selection in non-Blacks, rather than active selection for light skin in non-Blacks.
MC1R is one of the key proteins involved in regulating mammalianskin and hair color. …It works by controlling the type of melanin being produced, and its activation causes the melanocyte to switch from generating the yellow or red phaeomelanin by default to the brown or black eumelanin in replacement. …
This is consistent with active selection being necessary to produce dark skin, and relaxed selection producing lighter tones.
Studies show the MC1R Arg163Gln allele has a high frequency in East Asia and may be part of the evolution of light skin in East Asian populations. No evidence is known for positive selection of MC1R alleles in Europe and there is no evidence of an association between MC1R and the evolution of light skin in European populations. The lightening of skin color in Europeans and East Asians is an example of convergent evolution.
Dark-skinned people living in low sunlight environments have been recorded to be very susceptible to vitamin D deficiency due to reduced vitamin D synthesis. A dark-skinned person requires about six times as much UVB than lightly pigmented persons.
In Reconstructing Prehistoric African Population Structure, Skoglund et al assembled genetic data from 16 prehistoric Africans and compared them to DNA from nearby present-day Africans. They found:
The ancestors of the Bushmen (aka the San/KhoiSan) once occupied a much wider area.
They contributed about 2/3s of the ancestry of ancient Malawi hunter-gatherers (around 8,100-2,500 YA)
Contributed about 1/3 of the ancestry of ancient Tanzanian hunter-gatherers (around 1,400 YA)
Farmers (Bantus) spread from west Africa, completely replacing hunter-gatherers in some areas
Modern Malawians are almost entirely Bantu.
A Tanzanian pastoralist population from 3,100 YA spread out across east Africa and into southern Africa
Bushmen ancestry was not found in modern Hadza, even though they are hunter-gatherers and speak a click language like the Bushmen.
The Hadza more likely derive most of their ancestry from ancient Ethiopians
Modern Bantu-speakers in Kenya derive from a mix between western Africans and Nilotics around 800-400 years ago.
Middle Eastern (Levant) ancestry is found across eastern Africa from an admixture event that occurred around 3,000 YA, or around the same time as the Bronze Age Collapse.
A small amount of Iranian DNA arrived more recently in the Horn of Africa
Ancient Bushmen were more closely related to modern eastern Africans like the Dinka (Nilotics) and Hadza than to modern west Africans (Bantus),
This suggests either complex relationships between the groups or that some Bantus may have had ancestors from an unknown group of humans more ancient than the Bushmen.
Modern Bushmen have been evolving darker skins
Pygmies have been evolving shorter stature
I missed #12-13 on my previous post about this paper, though I did note that the more data we get on ancient African groups, the more likely I think we are to find ancient admixture events. If humans can mix with Neanderthals and Denisovans, then surely our ancestors could have mixed with Ergaster, Erectus, or whomever else was wandering around.
#15 is interesting, and consistent with the claim that Bushmen suffer from a lot of skin cancer–before the Bantu expansion, they lived in far more forgiving climates than the Kalahari desert. But since Bushmen are already lighter than their neighbors, this begs the question of how light their ancestors–who had no Levantine admixture–were. Could the Bantus’ and Nilotics’ darker skins have evolved after the Bushmen/everyone else split?
Meanwhile, in Loci Associated with Skin Pigmentation Identified in African Populations, Crawford et al used genetic samples from 1,570 people from across Africa to find six genetic areas–SLC24A5, MFSD12, DDB1, TMEM138, OCA2 and HERC2–which account for almost 30% of the local variation in skin color.
SLC24A5 is a light pigment introduced to east Africa from the Levant, probably around 3,000 years ago. Today, it is common in Ethiopia and Tanzania.
Interestingly, according to the article, “At all other loci, variants associated with dark pigmentation in Africans are identical by descent in southern Asian and Australo-Melanesian populations.”
These are the world’s other darkest peoples, such as the Jarawas of the Andaman Islands or the Melanesians of Bougainville, PNG. (And, I assume, some groups from India such as the Tamils.) This implies that these groups 1. had dark skin already when they left Africa, and 2. Never lost it on their way to their current homes. (If they had gotten lighter during their journey and then darkened again upon arrival, they likely would have different skin color variants than their African cousins.)
This implies that even if the Bushmen split off (around 200,000-300,000 YA) before dark skin evolved, it had evolved by the time people left Africa and headed toward Australia (around 100,000-70,000 YA.) This gives us a minimum threshold: it most likely evolved before 70,000 YA.
(But as always, we should be careful because perhaps there are even more skin color variant that we don’t know about yet in these populations.)
MFSD12 is common among Nilotics and is related to darker skin.
Further, the alleles associated with skin pigmentation at all loci but SLC24A5 are ancient, predating the origin of modern humans. The ancestral alleles at the majority of predicted causal SNPs are associated with light skin, raising the possibility that the ancestors of modern humans could have had relatively light skin color, as is observed in the San population today.
The full article is not out yet, so I still don’t know when all of these light and dark alleles emerged, but the order is absolutely intriguing. For now, it looks like this mystery will still have to wait.
“For those who don’t know, [Ralph “Sonny” Barger] was the man–the legend, really–who molded the Hells Angels into what they are. it’s not a stretch to say that Sonny Barger is a visionary who essentially created the image of the outlaw biker as we know it. He had help, to be sure, and the names of his cohorts dating back to the late fifties through the present are legendary in the biker world… these men created the image–the leather, the hair, the grime, the hardness, the silence, the impenetrability, the bikes–everything that constitute an outlaw biker. …
“Without the Hells Angels we wouldn’t have floor-model Harleys that look like stripped-down scream machines. No ape hangers… no bitch bar, no spool wheels, no front-end extenders. … The HA were obsessed with going fast, and without this obsession bikes would be slower. They were relentless in stripping their bikes of all but the barest essentials. The formula was simple: less weight plus bigger engines equaled more speed. Every pound they shed gained them two miles per hour. Thus “choppers”–chopped-down motorcycles. What they did was mimicked by everyone who wanted to be a Hells Angel but couldn’t be.”
EvX: When you get down to it, the motorcycle is a machine. A car is also a machine, but a car is a machine with a lot of metal between you and the engine. A chopper is a machine that has minimized the amount of metal between you and the engine. The motorcycle is about the closest you can get to just riding on an engine, riding straight down the highway on pure power.
Hells Angels International:
“[Berger] saw that the Angels could go international, that though American in origin, they needn’t be limited to America’s borders. As I’ve said before, I believe that the Hells Angels, and to a lesser extent all American-style biker gangs, are this country’s only organized-crime export.”
According to Wikipedia:
Numerous police and international intelligence agencies classify the Hells Angels as one of the “big four” motorcycle gangs, along with the Pagans, Outlaws, and Bandidos, and contend that members carry out widespread violent crime and organized crime, including drug dealing, trafficking in stolen goods, and extortion, and are involved in prostitution. Members of the organization have continuously asserted that they are only a group of motorcycle enthusiasts who have joined to ride motorcycles together, to organize social events such as group road trips, fundraisers, parties, and motorcycle rallies, and that any crimes are the responsibility of the individuals who carried them out and not the club as a whole. …
The HAMC acknowledges more than one hundred chapters spread over 29 countries. The Hells Angels motorcycle club founded a chapter in Auckland, New Zealand in 1961 and has since taken over gangs in Wanganui. New Zealand had the first chapter of the Hells Angels outside the United States. Europe did not become widely home to the Hells Angels until 1969 when two London chapters were formed. The Beatles‘ George Harrison invited some members of the HAMC San Francisco to stay at Apple Records in London in 1968. … Two charters were issued on July 30, 1969; one for “South London”—the re-imagined chapter renewing the already existing 1950 South London chapter—and the other for “East London” …The London Angels provided security at a number of UK Underground festivals including Phun City in 1970 organized by Mick Farren. They awarded Farren an “approval patch” in 1970 for use on his first solo album Mona, which also featured Steve Peregrin Took (who was credited as “Shagrat the Vagrant”).
In the 1980s and 1990s, there was a major expansion of the club into Canada. The Quebec Biker war was a violent turf war that began in 1994 and continued until late 2002 in Montreal. The war began as the Hells Angels in Quebec began to make a push to establish a monopoly on street-level drug sales in the province. A number of drug dealers and crime families resisted and established groups such as the “Alliance to fight the Angels”. The war resulted in the bombings of many establishments and murders on both sides. It has claimed more than 150 lives and led to the incarceration of over 100 bikers. …
A list of acknowledged chapters can be found on the HAMC’s official website.
“These contradictions fascinate me. The Hells Angels are separate from society, but they’re rooted in it. They’re nonconformists, but they all look the same; they’re a secret society, but also flamboyant exhibitionists; they flout the laws of the land, but they’re governed by a strict code; their name and their Death Head logo represent freedom, individualism, toughness, and lawlessness, but both name and logo are protected by legal trademarks.”
EvX: It sounds to me like they aren’t so much “non conformists” in the abstract as “non conformists” relative to a particular society. How many of these guys would succeed and be happy in the corporate world? People who think cars–which I regard as terrifying 2-ton death traps hurtling at 60 miles an hour down the road–as “cages” and want to take their chances with getting their flesh grounds straight onto the road do not strike me as people who’d be inclined to sit still in a cubicle all day.
Rather, the HAs and similar groups have opted out of mainstream society and formed their own, alternative society–a tribe of their own, replete with its own initiation rituals, tribal dress, symbolic brotherhood (the members of real tribes are usually quite closely related,) their own history and lore, and even their own army. By doing so, they leave the world in which they are at the bottom, and create a world where they are at the top.
But they still live in our society, and ironically, they definitely will sue you if you use their logos:
In March 2007 the Hells Angels filed suit against the Walt Disney Motion Pictures Group alleging that the film entitled Wild Hogs used both the name and distinctive logo of the Hells Angels Motorcycle Corporation without permission. …
In October 2010 the Hells Angels filed a lawsuit against Alexander McQueen for “misusing its trademark winged death heads symbol” in several items from its Autumn/Winter 2010 collection. The lawsuit is also aimed at Saks Fifth Avenue and Zappos.com, which stock the jacquard box dress and knuckle duster ring that bear the symbol, which has been used since at least 1948 and is protected by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. … “This isn’t just about money, it’s about membership. If you’ve got one of these rings on, a member might get really upset that you’re an impostor.” …
As of December 2013, the Hells Angels sells its branded merchandise at a retail store in Toronto, Canada.
Some final notes from Wikipedia on who can and can’t become a Hells Angel:
In order to become a Hells Angels prospect, candidates must have a valid driver’s license, a motorcycle over 750cc, and have the right combination of personal qualities. It is said the club excludes child molesters and individuals who have applied to become police or prison officers.
They might be outlaws, but they have standards.
To become a full member, the prospect must be voted on unanimously by the rest of the full club members. Prior to votes being cast, a prospect usually travels to every chapter in the sponsoring chapter’s geographic jurisdiction (state/province/territory) and introduces himself to every Full-Patch member. This process allows each voting member to become familiar with the subject and to ask any questions of concern prior to the vote. Some form of formal induction follows, wherein the prospect affirms his loyalty to the club and its members. The final logo patch (top “Hells Angels” rocker) is then awarded at this initiation ceremony. The step of attaining full membership can be referred to as “being patched”. …
The club claims not to be a racially segregated organization, although at least one chapter allegedly requires that a candidate be a white male, and Sonny Barger stated in a BBC interview in 2000 that “The club, as a whole, is not racist but we probably have enough racist members that no black guy is going to get in it”. At that time the club had no black members.
…Wooley [a black guy] became an associate of the Hells Angels Montreal chapter in the 1990s and later tried uniting street gangs in Quebec after Boucher was imprisoned.
In another interview with leader Sonny Barger in 2000 he remarked “if you’re a motorcycle rider and you’re white, you want to join the Hell’s Angels. If you black, you want to join the Dragons. …We don’t have no blacks and they don’t have no whites.” …Tobie Levingston who formed the black motorcycle club East Bay Dragons MC wrote in his book that he and Sonny Barger have a long-lasting friendship and that the Hells Angels and Dragons have a mutual friendship and hang out and ride together.
In a 1966 article about motorcycle rebels in the African-American community magazine Ebony, the Chosen Few MC stated that they see no racial animosity in the Hells Angels and that when they come into Chosen Few territory they all get together and just party. A Hells Angel member interviewed for the magazine insisted there was no racial prejudice in any of their clubs and stated “we don’t have any negro members” but maintained there have not been any blacks who have sought membership. At one point in the 1970s the Hells Angels were looking to consolidate the different motorcycle clubs and offered every member of the Chosen Few MC a Hells Angel badge, but the Chosen Few turned down the offer.
We should of course be skeptical about what people tell reporters–people don’t always want to admit in writing that they hate other people and might want to kill them. But we can contrast this against the HA’s attitude toward the Mongols, who are frequent subjects of ire in the book and whom the HA got in a shootout with back in 2002.
Meanwhile, Dobyns’ undercover persona is so good, the local police go after him:
“On the way home, on a dark side street deliberately taken to avoid a confrontation, we were pulled over for a traffic stop. …
Typically, when a mixed-club group of bikers is stopped, and Hells Angel are among those present, they get the most thorough attention. Everyone knows the Angels are the ones to be wary of, and that given an inch they will take it a mile. They must be attended to first.
“But they weren’t….
“An officer approached JJ and me from behind. When he got about ten feet from us, he racked a shell into the chamber of his shotgun…
“I didn’t appreciate the sound of that shotgun…
“Over the bullhorn a young, angry voice said, “Bird, [Dobyns’ undercover name] do not let go of your handlebars until ordered to do so. Do you understand?” I nodded yes. I held the bars with a death grip….
“The Angels were told to remain on their bikes. …
“I was led to the curb and told to kneel. I was led at the barrel of a loaded and charged shotgun. …
“The guys were cuffed and lined up curbside. No one but me had to kneel. No one but me had a gun drawn on them. The Angels couldn’t believe it, but as far as these cops were concerned, I was more dangerous than they were. …
“Meanwhile, Officer Shotgun talked to me. … He said, “You gotta move on, Bird, you gotta get the fuck out of my town.” “Meanwhile, Officer Shotgun talked to me.
“I said, ‘You can arrest me or lecture me, but I won’t take both, so make up your mind.’ “
EvX: Note Dobyns’s persona is demanding respect. He doesn’t get it from the police, but it was important for the observing Angels.
“He didn’t like that. He put his boot in between my shoulder blades and pushed me to the ground. Since I was cuffed I caught the pavement with my cheek. He kneeled, leaned in close, and whispered into my ear: “Motherfucker, if I ever see you in this town again I will fucking bury you in the desert where no one will ever fucking find you.”
“My recorder was going. I thought, Not good, dude. Not good for you. I knew this guy desperately wanted me out of his town and I knew he wasn’t using approved methods. I wanted to tell him what I was, but I couldn’t. It would be months until he learned how close he’d come to ruining his career that night.”
EvX: I once took a self-defense class taught by a retired police officer who claimed to have taken criminals out to the Everglades Swamp and left them for the alligators.
On the one hand, sometimes the justice system has trouble getting convictions against people who are actually violent criminals, and then you wonder if things wouldn’t be better if the police did more vigilante violence.
And then there are cases like this, where the police are dead wrong.
Respect, body language, and some interesting characters:
“On the thirty-first we waltzed into the Pioneer Saloon in Cave Creek and got a full introduction over the PA. …
“Everyone was there, and I mean everyone. Sonny, Johnny Angel, Hoover, Smitty, Joby, Bob, Fang–every guy who had any kind of influence in the state.
“Sonny came up and greeted each one of us, and in one of the greatest moments in bike investigator history, we got a group shot with him: Just Sonny Barger and Johnny Angel in the middle of a row of Sol Angeles, aka cops…
“As we left the side room I bumped into a short, roided out live wire with a shaved head. He looked like my shorter, wider twin. …
“The live wire asked, ‘What the fuck? You’re fucking Bird, aren’t you?’ He stabbed his finger at me, tapping me hard right were the bullet had come out of my chest.
“‘Yeah. that’s right.’
“‘Shit! I’m fucking Dirty Dan. And I need to talk to you. Come with me.’ … ‘I heard all about you, Bird. You’re some kind of crazy fucking cowboy, ain’t you? Shit, brother, I love that.’ …
“He asked about Mexico. I said I went to Mexico often. He said he’d heard there were Mongols down there. I said there were, but not too many. He said that as soon as his parole was up, he’d like to come with me, see if we could find some. I said great. He said find some and then kill ’em. I said awesome. He said we’d be a two-man massacre crew. I said, “Dirty Dan, you’re the kind of Hell Angel I’ve been waiting to meet.” He said that he liked the way I carried myself, that the club needed more guys like me. …
“After several minutes we parted company just as abruptly as we’d come together. We agreed to met and work out at the gym. He yelled, ‘All right! Later, Bird.’
“I yelled, ‘Later, Dirty Dan.’
“We’d been in a complete bubble. Hours after that, when were were winding down at the UC house, Gundo told me that when Dan and I started talking, all eyes turned to us. Our body language looked overly confrontational. Gundo said, ‘Man, I thought you two were gonna hit the deck. I was leaning against the bar with my hand on my gun… I thought we were about to be in the middle of an ass-beating shoot-out.’
“I laughed and said, ‘You kidding me? … I fucking loved that guy.’ …”
EvX: For the most part, the talk about killing Mongols sounds like a lot of talk, except during the 2002 River Run Riot, which occurred near the beginning of the book. Wikipedia summarizes:
The River Run Riot was a violent confrontation between the Hells Angels and the Mongols motorcycle clubs that occurred on April 27, 2002, in Laughlin, Nevada during the Laughlin River Run. The conflict began when members of the Hells Angels went to Harrah’s Laughlin to confront members of the Mongols who had allegedly harassed vendors that sold Hells Angels related merchandise. Mongol Anthony Barrera, 43, was stabbed to death, and two Hells Angels, Jeramie Bell, 27, and Robert Tumelty, 50, were shot to death.
Even by the end of the book, it was not clear what the essential nature of the Hells Angels really is. 1% clubs are ostensibly composed of criminals–that’s what the 1% means–but are they actually criminal organizations, or just organized criminals? The Angola Prison in in Louisiana, for example, publishes a newspaper, The Angolite, written by the prisoners. Obviously everyone who work on the paper is a criminal, but The Angolite isn’t a criminal organization, it’s just a newspaper. By contrast, the Mafia, while run by a set of related families from a particular ethnic background, obeying particular cultural codes, exists for the sole reason of committing crime. The Angolite is organized criminals; the Mafia is a criminal organization.
This may sound a bit existential, but for the police (and the HAs) it’s essential. If the HAs are just like-minded guys who want to ride motorcycles together, support their incarcerated brothers, hand out toys and bicycles to poor kids, and sell t-shirts, then they have every right to do that. Having once committed a crime does not preclude your right to hang out with other guys and ride motorcycles together. It doesn’t preclude your right to have a logo, copyright it, and sue Toys R Us if they violate it.
By contrast, if the HAs are actually using their organization to commit crimes, then the police can shut them down and seize their assets (logos included.)
This distinction is essential for Dobyns. The police can prove that plenty of individual people have committed crimes. He’s purchased plenty of illegal guns, for example. The River Run Riot was caught on surveillance cameras, and at least some of the perpetrators were arrested and convicted of murder. But it takes more than that to prove that an organization is actively conspiring to commit crimes.
The government tried to charge the Hells Angels under RICO (the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) back in 1979, but couldn’t make it stick:
In 1979 the United States Federal Government went after Sonny Barger and several members and associates of the Oakland charter of the Hells Angels using RICO. In United States vs. Barger, the prosecution team attempted to demonstrate a pattern of behavior to convict Barger and other members of the club of RICO offenses related to guns and illegal drugs. The jury acquitted Barger on the RICO charges with a hung jury on the predicate acts: “There was no proof it was part of club policy, and as much as they tried, the government could not come up with any incriminating minutes from any of our meetings mentioning drugs and guns.“
Angola, also known as the Louisiana State Penitentiary, is the largest maximum-security prison in the US. It holds 6,300 inmates, most of them for life–and for those who have no families or friends to bury them, death.
Before it became a prison, Angola was a slave plantation, named for the country most of its residents came from. With 18,000 acres and a working farm (complete with cotton fields) run by inmates, many people call it the nation’s last plantation.
I wanted to move away from traditional anthropology–focused primarily on “primitive,” non-industrialized peoples–and focus instead on the economic, political, and social lives of people on the margins of our own societies, such as pirates; criminals; prisoners; and the completely innocent, ordinary poor.
Spoiler alert: This is not an upbeat book. I mean, the author tries. He really does. But we are still talking about criminals who’ve been sent to prison for life. If you’re looking for something cheerful, go look at funny cat pictures.
Amazon’s blurb for the book reads:
Never before had Daniel Bergner seen a spectacle as bizarre as the one he had come to watch that Sunday in October. Murderers, rapists, and armed robbers were competing in the annual rodeo at Angola, the grim maximum-security penitentiary in Louisiana. The convicts, sentenced to life without parole, were thrown, trampled, and gored by bucking bulls and broncos before thousands of cheering spectators. But amid the brutality of this gladiatorial spectacle Bergner caught surprising glimpses of exaltation, hints of triumphant skill.
The incongruity of seeing hope where one would expect only hopelessness, self-control in men who were there because they’d had none, sparked an urgent quest in him. Having gained unlimited and unmonitored access, Bergner spent an unflinching year inside the harsh world of Angola. He forged relationships with seven prisoners who left an indelible impression on him. There’s Johnny Brooks, seemingly a latter-day Stepin Fetchit, who, while washing the warden’s car, longs to be a cowboy and to marry a woman he meets on the rodeo grounds. Then there’s Danny Fabre, locked up for viciously beating a woman to death, now struggling to bring his reading skills up to a sixth-grade level. And Terry Hawkins, haunted nightly by the ghost of his victim, a ghost he tries in vain to exorcise in a prison church that echoes with the cries of convicts talking in tongues. …
According to Bergner, in Angola’s early days in the late 1800s (post-Civil War,) conditions were extremely bad. Convicts were basically worked to death in Louisiana’s swamps; average life expectancy for a long-term prisoner was only 6 years.
The state took over the prison in 1901, which hopefully ended the working-to-death-era, but as Wikipedia notes:
Charles Wolfe and Kip Lornell, authors of The Life and Legend of Leadbelly, said that Angola was “probably as close to slavery as any person could come in 1930.” Hardened criminals broke down upon being notified that they were being sent to Angola. White-black racial tensions in the society were expressed at the prison, adding to the violence: each year one in every ten inmates received stab wounds.
In 1952, 31 inmates cut their own Achilles’ tendons in protest against prison conditions, (which are reported as pretty horrible,) but things didn’t really improve until the 70s, when Judge Polozola decided the prison was so bad that if the legislature find funds to clean things up, he’d start releasing prisoners. According to Bergner, this led to an initial improvement in conditions, but subsequently a liberal warden with a kumbaya-approach to running the place was appointed and matters degenerated again. The lax approach to managing the prisoners led to men sleeping in cafeteria-tray armor in hopes of not being murdered by their neighbors in the middle of the night.
A more conservative warden replaced the liberal one, marched in military style, re-established order, and got the shivving rate back down. Angola appears to have found a workable middle-ground between getting worked to death in the swamps and getting stabbed to death during candle-lit kumbaya sessions.
But since Louisiana is poor and people tend not to want to spend money on criminals, Wikipedia notes:
In 2009, the prison reduced its budget by $12 million by “double bunking” (installing bunk beds to increase the capacity of dormitories), reducing overtime, and replacing officers with security cameras.
That sounds like a bad idea.
Unfortunately for me, Bergner doesn’t explore the prisoners’ economy beyond the occasional reference to trade in cheese, cigarettes, or marijuana. (Cigarettes as prison currency appears confirmed.) He also doesn’t go into much detail about how the 6,300 prisoners (many of whom sleep in a large, open dormitory) regulate social relations among themselves. Rather, he focuses on describing the lives of a handful of inmates. Bergner’s mission is to humanize them–to portray them as people who, potentially, could be redeemed–without forgetting their crimes.
The biggest thing that stood out to me while reading was the gulf between these men’s lives and the world of middle and upper-class people who like to say high-minded things about criminals. The common vogue for blaming bad life outcomes on environmental effects–as though a few changes in early childhood could have radically changed the course of these men’s lives (and their victims’,) sending them to university instead of prison.
But this is not the story the mens’ biographies tell.
Obviously some people end up in prison by accident–unfortunate folks who actually were wrongly convicted. Then there are folks who did make a bad decision–or whose parents made bad decisions–that led to a much-regretted action. But this does not describe most of the Bergner’s criminals.
Rather, they share a combination of impulsiveness (high time preference,) aggression, and low-IQ.
In isolation, each of these traits is not so bad. People with Down’s Syndrome aren’t very bright, but they’re friendly and don’t murder others. An aggressive but smart person can understand the consequences of their actions and direct their aggression to socially-acceptable activities. But taken together, even people who later greatly regret their actions can, in a fit of rage, put a meat-cleaver into someone’s skull.
And even once they are in prison–a place where the average person might reflect that violence was a bad life choice–many criminals commit yet more violence–beating, raping, stabbing, and occasionally killing each other. Despite Angola being more peaceful than it was in the past (a peace imposed by marching guards in full riot gear,) it still requires constant, armed surveillance and daily searches to prevent the prisoners from shivving each other.
Bergner also visits a former Angola inmate in his home, where he now lives with his mother. As they survey the landscape surveying his childhood home–burned down buildings, crack houses on every corner, childhood friends consumed by drug use–it is clear that the traits that lead many men to Angola are not abnormalities, but more extreme forms of the traits responsible for the degradation around them.
This is an extremely difficult problem to solve, or even think up potential solutions for. It’s easy to say, “get the crack out of the cities,” but there were people dealing drugs even inside Angola. If people can smuggle and sell drugs in a maximum security prison, I don’t think anything short of heads on pikes will stop them from smuggling drugs into cities.
And even well-intentioned, drug-free people struggle with basics like picking up trash from their yards and preventing their homes from falling apart. As Bergner writes:
We stepped away from the house, a shabby box of pale green wood, the house Littell had been born in, that his mother still lived in, that he had returned to. A corroded swing set stood in front, then a low, wilting cyclone fence, then a stack of four torn tires like a welcoming statue beside the fence gate. … He never invited me inside, and I have always wondered what level of decrepitude or disarray he preferred not to show me…
Across from his house a vacant lot occupied half the block, a reminder of the property facing O’Brien, except that there the grass was cut low, while here saplings crowded one another amid shoulder-high reeds. An abandoned nightclub buckled behind the saplings. Within the tall grass were the charred boards of two houses leveled by arson while Littell had been at Angola. A pair of tremendous oak trees, draped with Spanish moss, had once shaded those houses. The trees still thrived, though now the effect was different, the dangling webs of moss no longer gentle but looking like an onslaught of chaotic growth spilling from the sky.
“This neighborhood was no Fifth Avenue,” Littell said as we passed between the lot on one side and homes like his mother’s on the other. “But it looked good. Fifteen years ago, a lot of these houses were still pretty new. Now it’s like nature’s taking over. When people move into a community they build up on nature, and now it’s like nature’s coming back and the will of man is losing out.” …
But he felt more threatened than I did, walking me around the neighborhood. Up ahead, three or four teenagers sat on the unrailed porch of a shack with boarded up windows. “They think you’re here to buy drugs,” he said, their eyes tracking us past the house. “They think I’m bringing the white dude around.” …
It was no joke to him. …. He had nothing to show the police if they stopped him for questioning. …
“Every evening, I try to be back inside by eight o’clock,” he said, “‘Cause all I need is to be in the wrong place at the time. They ask me for some ID, they see I got none, they run a check, see I’ve been to Angola, that’s it. Any unsolved robbery, they can pin it on me. You see, Dan, the new thing is that crack. And that’s everybody. It’s seldom you see anyone around here who’s straight. Sometimes it makes me thankful for Angola–all the guys I grew up with are wasted on it.”…
Then I listened to the neighborhood. At six-thirty in the evening it was silent, almost motionless. The dealers on their porch weren’t speaking. Nor were the women in their dingy yellow or powder blue knee-length shorts, sitting on a stoop propped up on cinder blocks. They only stared. No cars drove by…. A few rickety bicycles difted past,w ith grown men riding them. The supermarket where we went to buy sodas had seel mesh ove every window and, inside, scarecely any light… The grocery seemed to be the only operating business around. …
The place was like a ghost town, still inhabited.
I’ve often wondered: what is the difference between poverty and merely being poor or living at a lower socio-economic level? We don’t normally think of nomadic hunter-gatherers or pastoralists as “homeless.” A homeless guy sleeping under a bridge is poor, an aberration in a society where most people can afford homes; a hunter-gatherer sleeping in the bush is just living like his ancestors have always lived.
We might say that poverty is a departure from a community’s average–that is, a man is poor in comparison with his neighbors, not some global, a-historical ranking. But it seems a little dishonest to lump together people who live simply on purpose with people who struggle hard but still can’t get ahead.
So I propose a second definition: the inability to maintain the level of civilization you’re in. The Amish, for example, have a relatively low standard of living, low incomes, etc. But they are more than up to the task of maintaining their infrastructure, building their homes and barns, taking care of their horses, raising crops, etc. Amish society isn’t falling apart.
By contrast, Littell’s neighborhood has fallen apart over the fifteen years he spent at Angola. Nature is reclaiming the houses and burned-out businesses. We can blame crack, but that’s just kicking it back a level: why was this neighborhood blighted by crack while others went unscathed?
Many of the prisoners Bergner follows are functionally illiterate–one struggles (and fails) to pass a quiz intended for younger elementary school children. His struggle cannot be blamed on “lack of opportunity to learn,” as he is enrolled in a prison-based literacy programed whose entire purpose is to help inmates learn to read, and if there’s one thing people have lots of in Angola, it’s time.
Again, just as with impulsivity and aggression, the prisoners’ low-IQ mirrors that of their neighbors and peers back in the free population.
To be fair, this does not describe all of the prisoners. Some (like editors of the Angolite, Angola’s award-winning prison magazine) seem bright; some come across not as impulsively aggressive, but truly sociopathic.
Bergner wants us to consider redemption–the possibility, at least, that some of the men who have served 20, 30, or 40 years in prison may not be dangerous anymore, might have repented, might deserve a second chance at life. (One of the men he follows does seem truly sorry:
“Please take him off,” Terry prayed late at night, in Walnut [one of the dorms.] “He’s hunting me down again.”
His bedtime ritual had been performed hours earlier. On his cot, he had read the verses he’d highlighted months ago during his Bible group back at D. He turned the thin pages to find the neat orange markings
Lord, I cry unto Thee:
make haste unto me;
Give ear unto my voice…
Incline not my heart to any evil thing.
Then, twenty feet from whee the man had lost his sneakers and gained a long, scythe-shaped scar on the left side of his face, Terry knelt beside his own cot and closed his eyes and lowered his head to his folded head.
“Lord Jesus,” Terry went on, with a persistent hope that he was heard though he had failed to be saved,”thank you for looking over me… please keep an eye on my, Lord; can You take some of this away, Lord? Can you forgive me, Lord? …”
But after midnight something had woken him, and now Mr. Denver Tarter wouldn’t let him return to sleep. So Terry knelt again. …
“Please take him off. Please just this one thing.”
Religion plays a prominent role in the narrative, from the warden’s blustering claims of saving souls to the prison’s Pentecostal, “holy roller” church service; from quiet Bible study to the chaplain’s rounds:
Chaplain Holloway was assigned to Camp J. … Holloway pushed a grocery cart full of inspirational literature. … “What’s up, bro?” the chaplain asked at each set of bars. “What can I get for you, bro?” Built thick, a football player in college, he was a white hipster in a golfing shirt in the middle of the Inferno. I don’t know what he was, but he was tireless. And kind.
“How’d you end up back on One, bro?” he asked an emaciated man, referring to the worst of J’s levels, where you were let out of your cell–int a solitary dogrun–only two hours each week.
“I just told hello to a nurse on hospital call and told her she looked beautiful this morning.”
“Well, you know, babe,’ the chaplain said, understanding what had probably happened, that the man had told her hello and started jerking off, “next time just say hi and skip the rest of the verbology.”
He asked the man if he wanted to pray. They held hands and, leaning together, their foreheads almost touched. “In nine months you could be out of here, back in population,’ he encouraged afterward. … “You want some reading?”
He slipped through the bars a paperback of big-print advice and biblical quotations called You were born a Champion, Don’t Die a Loser. They held hand once more, and the chaplain moved on to the next convict. This was his day, this was his life, cell after cell after cell.
Those of us whose lives are so good that we have time for this voyeurism of peering into prisoners’ lives often approach religion with a disdainful, scornful attitude. Who needs a bunch of rules set down by an invisible sky fairy? Do you really need someone telling you not to steal? Don’t you already know how to behave?
But for many people at the bottom of society–not just criminals, but also the poor, the suffering, folks struggling with addictions, loss, disabilities or life-threatening diseases–religion really does seem to be a comfort, a guide, a way of working toward a better life. As I’ve documented before, in some of the world’s poorest and most isolated places, religious folks are often the only people willing to go to these awful places to try to help people.
It’s easy to look at statistics and say, “religious people are, on average, poor/less educated/more likely to be in prison/etc than atheists” but maybe this is like saying that people who buy hammers have a lot more nails that need pounding in than people who don’t.
The last thing that stands out in this narrative is the women who date and marry convicted murderers. Two of the men whose lives Bergner follows begin dating while in prison (for life). One meets a woman while performing in the annual Angola rodeo; she is impressed by his amateur bull-riding performance and they begin writing letters back and forth. Soon they were planning marriage, hoping for a pardon or an overturned conviction:
Pretty soon, he’d have it going in the courts. Pretty soon, he’d be working for Gerry Lane [just a guy he hopes to work for] himself, raising Belva’ kids like a regular father, straightening out her daughter and making sure the rest of them stayed on the right road Pretty soon, he’d have a son of his own. Pretty soon he’d be lying in bed next to Belva with all their letters piled up between them, all their letters from when he was in Angola, to read over how they got started.
They would be a family. They were already. He hadn’t met the two daughters, but the two boys had been to visit once, when there had been room in Sandra’s car. [Belva doesn’t have her own car but gets a ride with another woman visiting someone at the prison.] He played Pac-Man with the boys. …
The little Pac-Man munches snapped their jaws, and Brooks urged, “Gobble ’em, son, gobble ’em, move that stick,” and Marcus squealed, “Coon ass things! Coon ass things!” He seemed to think the Pac-Man prey were Cajun rednecks.
“Con ass things?” Brooks laughed.
And Marcus aw that it was funny. “Coon ass things! Coon ass things!” He cracked himself up, and Brooks put his cheek next to Marcus’s jittery, giggling head.
The boys had sent Brooks a Father’s Day card, and after his phone call with Belva he took the card from his box …:
“No one chooses a Dad From a magazine ad Or a paper with classifieds in it….
But if we’d had the chance For a choice in advance You’re the Dad we’d have picked in a minute.”
Tight to the top of the inside page, the thirteen-year-old, Kenny, had drawn a smiley face and written, “You are the father we did not have.”
He and Belva do get married, in a ceremony in one of the prison chapels. I rather doubt the relationship will last for the long-haul, however. Dating a guy in prison may seem fun at first, but as year after year of a life sentence pass by (and the author gives us no real reason to expect the men will receive the pardons they hope for,) the problems inherent in any long-distance relationship begin to manifest.
Bergner describes another relationship, begun when the prison’s band performed a show off prison grounds and the guitarist met a fan. She, too, already had a child (in this case, only one,) who quickly bonded with her “new father.” They were also married, but as the years passed, she stopped calling, stopped visiting. I suspect she has just grown bored, found someone else who is physically present in her own neighborhood.
Bergner doesn’t explore these women’s lives, what motivates them to date criminals serving life sentences for murder, nor the effects on their children. Chances are there is something deeply wrong in these women’s lives. Whether it is merely that love sometimes blooms in even unusual places, or something deeper, I can’t say and Bergner makes no comment. His focus is the criminals.
Race is obviously ever-present in the book–Angola’s population is about 90% African American, (according to Bergner,) in a state that’s only 30% black–but he never addresses it in any systematic way, nor does he discuss how (if at all) race impacts relationships between the prisoners.
Disclaimer: my copy of the book was missing a few pages, so there might have been something on those pages that I missed.
Ultimately, this isn’t exactly the book I’d have chosen for Anthropology Friday if I’d had more options, but it was still a good read and probably deserves more attention than it’s garnered.